By Joharah Baker
Since last June, stories of ill patients unable to leave the Gaza Strip, Israeli military invasions and fuel cuts have been streaming out of the coastal strip at a steady pace. The blockade imposed by Israel on Gaza ever since Hamas took over in June 2006 has resulted in hundreds of deaths, skyrocketing unemployment and lack of proper food and water supplies. On May 29, the collective punishment imposed on Gaza’s 1.4 million residents took yet another turn. Seven outstanding students granted the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship for university study in the United States were informed by the US State Department that their scholarships would regrettably be cancelled.
The reason for this sudden decision was completely unrelated to the merits of the seven students – obviously all intelligent and hard working given that they were able to snag the coveted scholarship. Rather, the culprit was, once again, the Israeli occupation, which denied the young adults exit permits from the beleaguered Gaza Strip. Since the blockade, Gaza residents have been virtually caged in the 360 square meter area, not allowed to leave, either into Israel or the West Bank from the Erez Crossing or from the Rafah Crossing into Egypt. This latter crossing has been a serious bone of contention between Palestinians, Israelis and Egyptians, who have occasionally opened the crossing for a few days at a time to let in the hundreds of stranded people on either side.
Given that the Fulbright Scholarship is so prestigious, a relatively “big stink” was made when the letters of apology arrived. One letter received by a Gaza student read, “We are extremely sorry that we are unable to finalize your scholarship at this time, and hope you will reapply next year and be able to complete your studies in the U.S.” Even US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was notified and made to comment. On her way to Iceland on May 30, Rice coolly noted that “Perhaps there are reasons [for the scholarship withdrawal], but I want to look into why this happened.”
“Why it happened” is pretty clear. Israel has had one major goal since its imposed blockade on the Strip, which is to squeeze out Hamas, undermine its political and military power and install a much more malleable Palestinian government in its stead, one which would be more acquiescing to Israel’s constant demands. Hence, its blockade is airtight, only allowing “urgent humanitarian cases” to leave the Strip with permission.
Israeli military spokesman Peter Lerner said Israel’s current policy is to issue permits only in humanitarian cases and "students are not included under the definition of humanitarian aid.”
It is not clear what exactly constitutes humanitarian aid according to the Israelis. Since the blockade was imposed under a year ago, 121 recorded Gazans died after being refused permits to leave the Strip to seek urgent medical attention.
Furthermore, with the constant fuel shortage due to Israel’s blockade on fuel supplies into Gaza, hundreds of thousands of Gazans go days on end without electricity and fresh fruits and vegetables are growing exceedingly scarcer and pricier due to the tight closure on crossings.
Still, even if we only address the issue at hand – the denial of these students to travel to the US for study – this is a gross violation of the intrinsic right to education. How could seven bright, young, ambitious Palestinians seeking only to better themselves and hence their country be a threat to Israel’s security? Even Secretary Rice sounded disturbed at the decision. ”If you cannot engage young people and give complete horizons to their expectations and their dreams, I don’t know that there would be any future for Palestine," she said.
Furthermore, Israel is hardly playing by its own rules. If students do not constitute a “humanitarian case” it seems even more unlikely that businessmen would. That was not the case last week when 122 businessmen from Gaza were able to reach Bethlehem to attend the Palestine Investment Conference, of course with Israeli facilitation. Hence, it is not really about Israel’s security measures but more about what would serve its interests. Boosting non-Hamas businessmen in Gaza could certainly assist in pumping up parts of the economy there not connected with the Islamic movement.
No doubt, this was no comfort to the seven students who had their hopes pinned on traveling to the US to attend some of the country’s best universities. The State Department said it would defer the scholarships to West Bank students rather than squander the grants altogether, adding that the Gazans would be eligible for Fulbrights next year if Israel insists on refusing them a ticket out.
The Israelis somehow believe Palestinian education really is threatening to their security, judging from past behavior. Since the inception of their illegal Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, every Palestinian university has been closed down by Israeli military order at one time or another. Palestinian universities were shut down from January 1988 to April 1992 after the outbreak of the first Intifada. For Birzeit University, this had been the 15th military closure of the university since 1979.
Since then, all 10 Palestinian universities in the West Bank and Gaza have been intermittently shut down by Israeli authorities, always with the excuse of the campuses being “beds of terrorism”. Of course, universities are representatives of the overall political, social and economic situation of any society, Palestine notwithstanding. So, while political activity is present and factions vie for student council seats in clear representation of the larger political scene, this is no excuse for depriving these students of the education they have a right to receive.
Unfortunately, like all the other dimensions of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the international community turns a blind eye to the injustices Israel metes out against the Palestinians. The closing of educational institutions by a military power is an atrocity under any circumstance, much less when it is done repeatedly, disrupting the educational process for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.
Luckily for the seven Fulbright recipients in Gaza,Israel had a change of heart. The Israeli human rights organization Gisha reported late on Sunday that “The U.S. Consulate tonight told Fulbright candidates from Gaza that it is restoring funding for the prestigious scholarship program and is ‘working closely’ with the government of Israel to secure permits for the students to leave Gaza in order to attend visa interviews at the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem and thereafter to leave Gaza for travel to the United States”. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the U.S. reversal came on orders from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who first heard about the scholarship fiasco on Friday. This goes to show that when the Palestinians play their cards right and embarassment is caused to the United States, all of a sudden Israel finds itself with no choice but to concede.
-Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH – www.miftah.org), where this article was originally published. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.